Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Of Writing and Perception

by Janis Patterson

The Husband and I just returned from a Caribbean cruise. Sounds like a Valentine-ish and really romantic thing to do, but it was work.

Yes, it really was.

Every other year the Florida Romance Writers have their conference on a cruise ship. This time it was Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, a three day cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel and back. They say it’s a four day, but with one sea day, one shore day and another sea day I only count three. Maybe they’re counting the afternoon you come on board and the morning you leave (obscenely early, I might add) as one day. Who knows?

Anyway, everything was simply splendid – wonderful food in incredible variety, from a snack shop to a casual buffet to formal three-course menu service, every amenity you can dream of, from pool to gym to spa to shops to casino and lots of other things, even including an ice cream shop. Our favorite was the champagne bar, which had an incredible selection. We discovered our favorite champagne there – Veuve Cliquot – during the last conference and during this one I found a new addiction – the Sweet Kiss, a combo of Ice Wine and champagne. Yum!

But it really was work. Under all the fun and camaraderie there was a writer’s conference and a very good one at that. I write both romance (though not so much as before these days) and mystery (and a bunch of other things, too) and have always believed that writing is writing, no matter what genre spin you put on it.

I was wrong.

The trouble, however, is not in the writing, but in the reading and expectations.

One of the niftiest features of the conference is Floridian Idol competition. Upon arrival you can hand in two pages of your current work in progress, then it will be read by volunteers to the audience and a panel of editors/agents. The submissions are anonymous, so you can listen to what is said without being self-conscious and the panelists can comment openly. It’s an enlightening experience – sometimes heartening and sometimes painful.

Of course, this is a romance conference, but as at the moment I don’t have a romance project in progress, I took the first two pages of my current mystery. At least no one said my writing was bad. They just looked at it through romance eyes, saying my lead character was unsympathetic and the opening was slow.

Slow? Perhaps. I have always hated mysteries where the body appears on page one like a curtain-up stage prop. Although I did write a body-on-the-first-page story as a personal challenge, I like readers to get to know my characters, good and bad, so that when one of them is murdered there is a sense of connection, of loss. However neatly it is done, murder is a crime of violence and should be regarded as such, not just as a story convention. In my mind a victim should be a person in the world of that book, not just a plot device.

As for my lead character not being sympathetic, I just don’t get this. Who says the lead character always has to be sympathetic? In a romance, it might make sense, but in a mystery…? My sublimely self-confident sleuth Flora Melkiot is an elderly woman, the wealthy widow of a jeweler, who does exactly what she wants pretty much whenever she wants and woe be unto those who get in her way. A born snoop who is convinced that whatever she does is good for whoever is involved, she enjoys unraveling mysteries. In short, she is the dark side of Miss Marple, an opinionated and nosy woman who thinks nothing of taking down crime scene tape if she wants to examine something or badgering a witness for information or using her own money to chase down a lead. She’s many things both good and bad – fascinating and challenging to write, but probably would be hell to work with in reality – and I love her. Actually, I would like to grow up and be her.

So, while I value the input of my fellow conferees, I can’t take their assessment completely seriously. Writing is definitely a multi-purpose skill that covers all, but apparently the important thing in genre fiction is perception.


Jacqueline Seewald said...


Good luck with the new novel. The input you received may or may not be helpful. Only you can decide that.

Victoria Adams said...

I love murder mysteries - I have all of Agatha Christie's, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's and Dorothy L Sayers' books. I only mention this because what I love is that mystery writers take the time to settle you into the story- put you in the scene - before they throw the body at you. You know it's coming - it's a murder mystery - but the fun is the when and how the body will show up. Now when I read a romance and by page 3 the hero and heroine are lusting after each other - I give up. Story is solved. Whoever makes up these asinine rules about romance should really step back and read some mysteries.

Jane Gorman said...

Expectations are so important, aren't they? I'm learning that that's really what genre is all about- and what makes it work so well. That's why marketing is (unfortunately) so important to do right, too. To make sure your reader is reading the book she expects to be reading!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good post. Even with my writers' group comments on my wip, often I don't do what they say, but the fact that they've commented on a certain part often gives me a better idea. I'd love to go on a mystery writers' cruise.

Patg said...

That's exactly how cruise days are counted. In the travel business nights are what counts, so if you had 3 nights aboard the ship, it was a 4 day cruise.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Work or not, I want to attend this conference one day and drink some of that champagne!
About your character not being sympathetic. I don't get it either. I had an an agent reject one of my manuscripts because a character (not the main one) was a spoiled brat! Well, yeah, I made her a spoiled brat for a reason.
I enjoyed your blog post, Janis. Thanks for sharing.

Morgan Mandel said...

If I like a book character, I'll keep reading. The common thought is to make the hero heroic and heroine also heroic, but if an author can pull the reader in by making a character very interesting, that'll work also. It does help to give the character a few redeeming qualities, so readers can bond in some way. The obvious one is giving that character a dog or cat to love.

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